'We have a rule in the plan that nobody understands'

A young family facing ''financial ruin'' must be given the same consideration as the protection of ecological values on Hawea Flat land, it was submitted in the Environment Court in Queenstown yesterday.

A hearing is being held this week to consider cancellation of an interim enforcement order requiring farmer Dougal Innes to stop clearance of native vegetation on land he has a purchase agreement on above the Clutha River at Hawea Flat.

Mr Innes has already cleared a large amount of vegetation and carried out discing on the land, which has been assessed by government departments as having high conservation values.

The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand deemed Mr Innes' actions illegal and successfully applied to the Environment Court for the interim enforcement order.

It was served on Mr Innes, as respondent, and the Queenstown Lakes District Council earlier this month, around the same time the council issued an abatement notice on Mr Innes.

However, in written legal submissions, Mr Innes' lawyer Jan Caunter said her client had consulted the council and was at no stage advised he needed resource consent.

''If we had somebody who had flagrantly breached the [district] plan that would be quite different. But that is not what has occurred here,'' Ms Caunter told the court.

''... It is submitted that the information provided to Mr Innes by the council and the implication that no resource consent was required is relevant to the court's assessment.''

The court needed to consider not only the potential for damage to any indigenous vegetation on the site, but the impact on Mr Innes of not being able to complete the cultivation work, which would leave him with ''no reasonable use of his land'', Ms Caunter said.

''Mr Innes and his young family are facing financial ruin if the land is protected from further development,'' her written summary of background facts stated.

Forest and Bird lawyer Peter Anderson said the effects on the environment of cancelling the interim enforcement order were a ''critical'' consideration and should be the focus, rather than the effects on the parties.

He said if there was a strong case for an enforcement order and if there was likely to be significant irreparable adverse effects if the interim order was cancelled, there would need to be a ''highly compelling reason'' for its cancellation.

Ms Caunter said given the ''significant'' level of disagreement among the lawyers, planners and ecologists involved in the case on how the district plan rules relating to indigenous vegetation should be interpreted, it would be especially difficult for a layperson such as Mr Innes to accurately interpret them.

''There are lots of different ways of looking at the rule and that in itself is causing me great concern, that we have a rule in the plan that nobody understands.''

Judge John Hassan instructed ecologists acting for Mr Innes, Forest and Bird and the council to jointly respond to a series of questions aimed at providing clarity on the definition of indigenous vegetation. They will report back to the court today.

The hearing is expected to continue until Thursday, when the court will issue a verbal decision on whether the interim enforcement order is to be confirmed or cancelled.

Dairy farmer James Cooper, a neighbour of the site, and Federated Farmers are interested parties in the court process.

lucy.ibbotson@odt.co.nz